Charles-François Gounod (17 June 1818 – 17 October or 18 October 1893) was a French composer, best known for his Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach, as well as his opera Faust. Gounod was born in Paris, the son of a pianist mother and an artist father.
His mother was his first piano teacher.
Under her tutelage, Gounod first showed his musical talents.
He entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Fromental Halévy and Pierre Zimmermann (he later married Anne, Zimmermann’s daughter).
In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand.
He was following his father; François-Louis Gounod (d. 1823) had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783.
During his stay of four years in Italy, Gounod studied the music of Palestrina and other sacred works of the sixteenth century; these he never ceased to cherish.
Around 1846-47 he gave serious consideration to joining the priesthood, but he changed his mind before actually taking holy orders, and went back to composition.
Gounod wrote his first opera, Sapho, in 1851, at the urging of a friend of his, the singer Pauline Viardot; it was a commercial failure.
In 1852 Gounod had become conductor of the Orphéon Choral Society in Paris, for which he wrote a number of choral works, including two masses.
From 1870 he spent five years in London, formed a choir to which he gave his name (and which later became the Royal Choral Society), and devoted himself almost entirely to the writing of oratorios.
Gallia, a lamentation for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra, inspired by the French military defeat of 1870, was first performed in 1871 and was followed by the oratorios La Rédemption and Mors et Vita (Life and Death) in 1882 and 1885.
He had no great theatrical success until Faust (1859), derived from Goethe.
This remains the composition for which he is best known; and although it took a while to achieve popularity, it became one of the most frequently staged operas of all time, with no fewer than 2,000 performances of the work having occurred by 1975 at the Paris Opéra alone.
The romantic and melodious Roméo et Juliette (based on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet), premiered in 1867, is revived now and then but has never come close to matching Faust’s popular following.
Mireille, first performed in 1864, has been admired by connoisseurs rather than by the general public. The other Gounod operas have fallen into oblivion.
There is some controversy surrounding Faust. Many critics believed it was a far advancement over Gounod’s prior works.
One critic stated his doubt that Gounod composed it, which prompted Gounod to challenge the critic to a duel.
The critic withdrew his statement.
Later in his life, he wrote much religious music, including a musical setting of Ave Maria based on the first prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach and Hymnus Pontificius the anthem of Vatican.
He was made a Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur in July 1888.
In 1893, shortly after he had put the finishing touches to a requiem written for his grandson, he died of a stroke in Saint-Cloud, France.